Ethiopia in 80 languages

The Eretz Israel Museum presents, ‘Ethiopia: Land of Wonders’ exhibition.

Epiphany ceremony (photo credit: Benny Furst)
Epiphany ceremony
(photo credit: Benny Furst)
In I Kings 10, we are told that the Queen of Sheba journeyed to Israel to meet King Solomon, from a land now generally believed to have been Ethiopia.
Having heard so much about Solomon’s wisdom and closeness to God, the queen arrived in Jerusalem with her entourage and a caravan of camels bearing spices, gold and precious stones, determined to find out how wise Solomon really was.
After subjecting the king to a barrage of difficult questions, the queen was convinced of his wisdom and gave Solomon all of the gold, precious stones, and spices that she had brought. “Never again were so many spices brought in as those the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon,” says the biblical account.
Not to be outdone, “King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty.” The account ends with the queen departing Jerusalem with her retinue and returning to Ethiopia.
However, the ancient Ethiopian chronicle Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of the Kings”) tells us a little bit more.
According to that account, the Queen of Sheba returned to her capital at Aksum not only laden with Solomon’s gifts but also pregnant with his son. That son, named Menelik, returned as a prince to Jerusalem 18 years later to meet his father.
And on his way home at the end of his visit, he and his entourage managed to steal the Holy Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jerusalem and spirit it back to Aksum. Many Ethiopians believe to this day that the Ark still rests there, in the Church of Maryam of Zion.
You might say that our two countries, Ethiopia and Israel, go back together a long, long time. And in celebration of that lengthy relationship, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv is showing “Ethiopia: The Land of Wonders,” a rich and colorful exhibition highlighting the dramatic history as well as the cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity of that fascinating country.
THE KEY word here is “diversity.” Considering that we are in Israel, that most of us here are Jews, and that the venue for the show is the Eretz Israel Museum, one might have expected an exhibition about Ethiopia to focus almost entirely on the Beta Israel, Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community, who are mostly now living here in Israel.
Surprisingly, however, exhibition curator Sara Turel resisted the temptation to do this and instead presents us with a comprehensive look at an ancient land that today is home to some 90 distinct ethnic groups speaking more than 80 languages, as well as adherents of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Islam and, until very recently, Judaism.
“This exhibition was perhaps two years in preparation, from beginning to today,” Turel says. “Ethiopia became a personal interest of mine, because of the Beta Israel. I wanted to know about where they came from, I wanted to learn about this place, Ethiopia.”
The result is a surprisingly comprehensive exploration of the country, featuring photographs; ritual objects; arts, crafts, and clothing; centuries-old illustrated manuscripts; historical artifacts; music and musical instruments; ethnographic items and video documentaries.
Maya Cohen Mossek, the exhibition’s research specialist, says “Our idea was to tell the story of Ethiopia as a whole. We wanted to show the kaleidoscopic character of the country. The exhibition is about the fascinating 2,000-year history of this very special place.”
Interestingly, the show starts with a brief look at Ethiopia’s geography. “In order to make it possible to visualize the diversity, we wanted to start with a kaleidoscope of landscapes, to show the beautiful diversity of the country. It breaks down the myth that Ethiopia is a big desert. Here we see that there is also a lot of green.
We also see lots of water – Ethiopia is the source of the Blue Nile. So it was important to show this very beautiful, diverse landscape,” she says.
From landscape, Mossek moves on to history and culture.
“We’re really just showing a small part of what we assembled over the past two years,” she says. “You have to choose your narrative, because you can’t tell the whole fascinating, enormous history. So we have here a fraction of the narrative, and a fraction of the objects we could show.”
Inevitably, Judaism and the Beta Israel play a significant part of that narrative. Indeed, one learns from the exhibition that the population of Aksum, Ethiopia’s ancient capital, was approximately half Jewish before the advent of Christianity in the fourth century, according to traditional belief. Ethiopia’s Christians consider themselves to be descendants of ancient Israelites, but only Beta Israel remained faithful to their religion and refused to convert.
WHILE THE origins and early history of the Beta Israel are shrouded in mystery, their narrative is long and dramatic, dotted with stories of autonomous Jewish kingdoms led by powerful Jewish kings and queens. These kingdoms were formidable opponents of Christian emperors, holding their own and often emerging victorious in wars for hundreds of years.
The first reliable account of the Beta Israel community to come from a source outside of Ethiopia is found in Scottish explorer James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (published in 1790). Bruce mentions a 1,300-year-old Jewish kingdom, located in the Semien Mountains in central Ethiopia. The exhibition chronicles the world’s gradual awareness of the existence of this “lost tribe of Israel,” an awareness that became more concrete after lengthy visits to the community by Jewish- French Orientalist Joseph Halévy in 1868 and Dr. Jacques Faitlovitch in 1904.
Says Mossek, “Our narrative of the Beta Israel stops at the point of their immigration to Israel. What happens after that is a different exhibition.”
This exhibition, however, displays a wide array of photos and artifacts, enough to keep a visitor busy.
Two objects that stand out are a large, very colorful cotton embroidered tapestry displaying stories from the Bible, made by Beta Israel men in an Addis Ababa transit camp while they were waiting to come to Israel; and a photo of newly arrived Ethiopian and Russian immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport, each group eyeing the other with guarded curiosity.
Ethiopia today has a roughly equal number of Christians and Muslims, and a section of the exhibition is accordingly devoted to Islam. We learn that Ethiopia’s connection with Islam began at the very dawn of the religion, when Muhammad’s ministry in Mecca was greeted with hostility and persecution by local non- Muslim Arabs.
Muhammad called on his besieged followers to flee Mecca in 615 and seek sanctuary with the Christian Ethiopian king in Aksum who, he said, “is just and oppresses no one.” Many Muslims today still associate Ethiopia with the life-saving refuge it afforded to their earliest coreligionists.
PERHAPS THE exhibition’s most pleasant surprise is the section devoted to Ethiopia’s tribal people. We see not only ethnographic objects but also a striking array of photographs of various traditional ethnic groups, notably the Mursi, Surma, Karo and Konso people, as well as tribes of the Omo valley and Afar.
Predictably perhaps, the photographer chose to emphasize these people’s “exotic” appearance, presenting us with National Geographic-style pictures of platelipped women, painted faces, and women’s ornamental headwear adorned with the tusks of wild boars. The photos are compelling, however, and the accompanying explanations will inform visitors previously unaware of the extent of Ethiopia’s breathtaking ethnic diversity.
Along with a section displaying a time line of Ethiopia’s history to the present day is a series of photos by world-renowned Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh, chief curator of the Addis Ababa Museum of Contemporary Art. Visitors will enjoy the experience of watching a video of Emperor Haile Selassie addressing the League of Nations following Mussolini’s invasion of his country in 1935, and then turning to Muluneh’s sensitive photographs of Ethiopia at the present moment.
The exhibition also features the wide array of Ethiopian music, with recordings of everything from traditional Amharic folk songs to contemporary Ethiopian jazz.
Finally, the museum plans to set up a special zone in the exhibition hall where schoolchildren will be able to engage in a variety of interactive activities that will enrich their knowledge about Ethiopia and the unique heritage of Ethiopia’s Jews.
“Ethiopia: The Land of Wonders” will be held through June 10 at Eretz Israel Museum, 2 Haim Levanon Street, Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv. Open Sunday-Wednesday 10-4, Thursday 10- 8; Friday and Saturday 10-2. For further information, visit